Russell Crowe in 'Les Miserables' (Photo: Universal Pictures)
Jean Valjean spends almost two decades of his life in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. But the character who is perhaps more on trial in Tom Hooper's screen adaptation of "Les Miserables" -- at least where audience approval is concerned -- is Valjean's tormentor, Javert, as Russell Crowe looks to hold his own against some big-time musical theatre heavyweights.
Crowe is known for playing larger-than-life characters such as Maximus in "Gladiator," 'Lucky' Jack Aubrey in "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and the title role in "Robin Hood." But the Hollywood superstar may have felt a little intimidated by his co-stars in "Les Miserables," at least when it came to being able to handle the show's soaring, near-operatic songs.
The casting of Hugh Jackman as Valjean was a no-brainer, as the "X-Men" alum comes from the world of musical theatre, having delighted audiences in both America and overseas in stage productions of "Beauty and the Beast," "The Boy From Oz," "Oklahoma!" and, most recently, "Hugh Jackman: Back on Broadway." Anne Hathaway (Fantine) performed on Broadway in the Stephen Sondheim tribute benefit, "Children and Art," and Off-Broadway in "Carnival." And Sacha Baron Cohen (Thenardier) Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thenardier)... well, you saw Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd," didn't you?
Most of the cast seems accounted for when it comes to having the chops (and lungs) to pull off one of the most difficult musicals of all time. But all eyes (or, rather, ears) are on Crowe to see (and hear) whether he has what it takes, especially when he shares so many songs with a tried and true veteran like Jackman.
Our prediction? Crowe's not going to send anyone to the moon -- or the gallows -- with his singing. But nor is he going to be proclaimed as the weak link of the film.
Our evidence? The first clip featuring Crowe singing in "Les Miserables" features Valjean being released after 19 years in prison. Javert, who refuses to refer to the ex-convict by his name but rather only as "Prisoner 24601," warns him of the dire consequences should he return to a life of crime, and thus an epic hunter-and-hunted relationship is born. The intertwined fates of their characters carried over to off-screen as well, apparently. Jackman told Entertainment Weekly that working together really bonded the two Australian imports. Jackman said, "Some days I'd be doing a song, and he'd come support me. And vice versa."
Watch Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman sing in 'Les Miserables':
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Jackman also noted that Crowe himself expressed some nervousness about taking on the role, which meant singing live on the set as cameras rolled and not in the safety of a recording studio. Jackman said, "I remember [Russell] saying, 'I feel a feeling I haven't for a long time doing this movie -- kind of good-scared.'"
Crowe sounds just fine. He hits the notes -- and, more importantly, he hits the emotions, which can often go a long way in compensating for maybe not being as good a crooner as Wolverine. And it's not like Crowe has never sung before; he has a well-documented history of being the front man for rock bands, including 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, which released one EP and three full-length records, and, more recently, The Ordinary Fear of God (hey, the man definitely at least deserves points for conjuring creative band names). He also belted out an impressive rendition of "Hot Patootie" as Eddie in a stage production of "The Rocky Horror Show."
Anyway, it's so far, so good with the release of "Prologue: On Parole." Crowe's real test, of course, will be how he handles the devastating "Javert's Suicide," which we're sure we won't get to hear until "Les Miserables" hits theaters on December 25.
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